I've noticed a girl in my daughter's grade at school who is pretty pudgy—and she's always smiling. One reason she may be so happy: Her parents have decided not to focus on her weight. They probably believe that it's more important for their daughter to feel good about herself and enjoy a normal childhood than to be self-conscious about whether she's as thin as the other girls.
I'm glad that this girl isn't uncomfortable about how she looks, but I don't envy her parents. I'm sure it's hard to be a kid in our body-obsessed culture, and to watch perfect-looking tween celebrities on the Disney channel. While you don't want your child to feel badly about herself (or himself), you also don't want your child's weight problem to get worse—so that she grows up to have a serious lifelong weight problem. And peers may not be as kind to a heavy teen. What's the best thing to do?
The article in our March issue, "Let's Talk About Chubby Children," addresses this issue head-on. Roughly 1 in 3 American kids is overweight or obese, but doctors are increasingly worried about the millions of additional kids who are at risk. Losing weight (and keeping it off) is difficult, and it's much easier to prevent a weight problem from developing in first place. A child is considered to be obese if his BMI is above the 95th percentile, and is considered to be overweight if his BMI is at or above the 85th percentile. Preschoolers with a BMI between the 75th and 85th percentile are six times more likely to become obese or overweight by age 12 than kids with a BMI in the 50th percentile or lower. Calculating your child's BMI from his height, weight and age is complicated, but you can use the calculator here.
Doctors say it's never too early to take steps to avoid a weight problem, including not overfeeding a baby. Toddlers and preschoolers are at the "sweet spot" for reducing obesity risk because when a 2- to 5-year-old develops a habit (good or bad), it tends to stick. Simple steps such as serving low-fat milk or water instead of juice, and having dessert nights rather than treats every day, can make a surprisingly big difference. You can teach your kids to recognize and stop eating when they're full, and to consider food to be fuel. Ideally, every member of your family should follow the same food rules, regardless of size—so that you're not singling out your chubby child. And another reason to stick to a strict bedtime: Not getting enough sleep can make kids (and parents) more hungry.
Diane Debrovner is the deputy editor of Parents and the mother of two girls. Follow her on Twitter @ddebrovner.